Nikolaj Volgushev

Jerry is building a wall. He tells me, ‘I’m building a wall.’

I don’t really understand.

‘But Jerry,’ I say. ‘Jerry, we are software engineers. How come you are building a wall? How do you even find the time?’

Jerry sharpens a pencil. He is uncomfortable. ‘Well, I’m building it in my sleep,’ he admits eventually, after the pencil is so sharp you could drive it right through a telephone book.

‘So you’re sleepbuilding a wall?’ I clarify. ‘That’s interesting. Did you know I have a cousin who sleepwalks?’

Jerry snaps the pencil in half. He is upset. ‘No. It’s not like that. I’m not sleepbuilding a wall. I’m building a wall in my dreams.’

‘Ah,’ I say. I still don’t really understand. I think about my cousin Bill. He sleepwalked right out of a window once. What a hoot.

Jerry puts down the two halves of the pencil. He feels the need to explain.

‘Every night, I go to bed and I fall asleep and dream that I’m building a wall.’

‘Ah!’ I say. Now I understand. ‘Dreams are weird, aren’t they? I dreamt the other day I was an otter.’

Jerry sharpens another pencil.

‘This is different. I keep dreaming about the wall, night after night. For over a week now. I’ve been building this damn wall for over a week now.’

‘Ah,’ I say. I’m intrigued.

‘Well, are you making progress?’ I venture.

Jerry nods, testing the sharpness of the pencil with his fingertip. ‘Yes, it’s going all right.’

Jerry puts the pencil aside. ‘The problem is, I have back pains and blisters now. From building the wall, you know?’

Jerry shows me his hands. They’re raw and red and shaky.

‘Yowza!’ I exclaim.

‘Yeah . . . It’s hard work,’ Jerry says and produces a phone book from a drawer. He picks it up and drives the pencil and the sharp half of the broken pencil right through. Jerry gets that way sometimes.

I feel like I should cheer him up.

‘Hey, Jerry,’ I say. ‘Do you want to explain to me again what a subroutine is? A motherboard? Encapsulation?’

That does the trick.

Jerry doesn’t come into work for a whole week. Sick days. The team is falling behind on the project. There are bug reports. All unit tests are failing. I smack a ruler on the table. No one listens.

‘Where is Jerry?’ a man wearing a red tie demands to know.

I don’t like his tone. ‘Jerry is building a wall,’ I tell him. ‘Jerry is building the wall of his dreams.’

The man turns the color of his tie. ‘Have some grace,’ he tells me. I turn back to my computer. Gosh darn. Another bug report.

I meet Jerry for lunch. He is a different man now, not the Jerry from two weeks ago. His eyes are like wells, his hands are calloused, his movements sparse. His mere presence inspires awe.

‘How are you, Jerry?’ I ask, ordering clams.

Jerry orders a shrimp dish, a salmon dish, a lobster dish, a tuna dish, a squid dish, also mussels. Jerry is insatiable.

‘Are you still building the wall?’ I dare to ask.

Jerry swallows the lobster whole. He crunches on the shell.

‘Well, what kind of wall is it? Are you using mortar and brick? Is it a cement wall? Are you wearing a hardhat? What is the purpose of the wall? Is the purpose of the wall to keep people in, or to keep people out? Is it merely decorative? Are you reconstructing the Berlin Wall as a social commentary? Do you stand upon the wall and look out into the sunrise at the end of the night? Will quality assurance need to stay up for days testing your wall once you’re done building it?’

Jerry takes a swig of wine and wipes his mouth with the back of his enormous, calloused hand.

‘Jerry, you must understand, these aren’t just my questions. People around the office are curious, you see? They feel strongly that they have a right to know.’

I produce a legal pad with a list of questions I was asked to ask Jerry during lunch.

Jerry takes the pad from me and answers them all.

His answers are satisfactory.

‘Thank you, Jerry. I appreciate you taking the time.’

Jerry finishes the mussels, leaving six clean plates on the table. He leans back into his chair and unbuckles his belt.

‘One more thing I would like to know, if it’s no trouble . . .’ I try my luck, ‘What is it like building the wall? Would you say it is a hardship? Do you scream out at night — Good God, I never asked for this — or is it more of a blessing, a liberation of the soul, are you filled with the overwhelming joy of creation?’

Jerry doesn’t answer. He just sheds one gigantic, salty tear. It rolls down his cheek and lands on the floor noisily.

‘Hey, Jerry,’ I say in an attempt to undo the damage I have done. ‘Do you want to explain to me again what a call stack is? RAM? Polymorphism?’

Jerry does.

The next morning I get a call from Jerry’s wife. She tells me Jerry won’t wake up any more. She tells me she has assembled all the alarms around the house and that they’re going off (she isn’t lying, I can hear them in the background), that she has tried splashing Jerry with water, and punching him in the face, and whispering to him softly.

‘Well, is he breathing?’ I demand.

‘He is snoring.’ (Again, this is the truth, I can hear his giant breath over the sound of the alarms.)

‘I will be right there,’ I assure her, get in the car, and run a million red lights.

We’re all gathered around Jerry’s bed. His wife is holding his hand in both of hers (it’s so enormous, it won’t fit otherwise). The window is open; there is a fresh alpine breeze. Some of the alarms are still going off periodically because with some clocks the mechanism of turning the alarm off is an enigma, even to us software engineers. Jerry is breathing heavily, making the room shake.

Pedro, the janitor, walks in. He apologizes for being late and takes a seat next to the ladies from quality assurance.

Someone demands that we discuss the semantics of the wall Jerry is building. ‘I would like to know Jerry’s intentions in building this wall. I would like to know the deep childhood trauma which caused him to do so. I would like to have it affirmed that Jerry is building the wall symbolically, to solidify his deep isolation from reality. Can we all agree that Jerry is building the wall because he is lost, because he is fearful of death, because the universe is a fleeting, cold creature that is immeasurable and yet collapsing further and further onto itself every perceived moment of time?’

Jerry’s wife breaks into tears. We offer her tissues. ‘Now, now,’ we say. ‘There, there.’

‘What do you think will happen once he’s finished building the wall?’ someone ventures eventually. Jerry’s wife, just having calmed down, resumes sobbing again. We assure her that we didn’t mean it that way.

‘Surely he’ll wake up,’ I offer my opinion, though in my heart of hearts I am not convinced. In my heart of hearts there is fear and doubt and uncertainty.

Jerry sneezes, then turns over onto his side. His shadow covers us all; the temperature drops. Jerry’s wife returns with hot chocolate and blankets for everyone. We continue in our vigil.

These days, whenever I pass a wall I imagine that Jerry built it. Especially those stone walls trailing off into the forest, moss-covered and derelict, dysfunctional at first glance.

I wonder what the purpose of these walls is; I mean, look at them among the pines and shrubs and roots, what are these walls actually dividing?

‘All forgotten spaces,’ Jerry tells me from afar. ‘They’re dividing all forgotten spaces, don’t you feel it?’

I tell him that I do, but really I don’t. There’s a certain nostalgia to this kind of lie, a bright, childish disappointment.

Maybe one of these days I ought to build a wall myself, I think. Maybe.

Nikolaj Volgushev was born in Goettingen, Germany, in 1991. Volgushev works in the medium of short fiction with a focus on the magic realist and absurdist genres. He obtained his B.S. in Computer Science at the University of Connecticut in 2013 and currently resides in Boston, Massachusetts. He is pursuing his PhD in Cybersecurity at Boston University. Volgushev draws influence from writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami, and Donald Barthelme as well as the strange realms of software development and formal logics.

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